Kung Fu Fighting (and cooking, and dancing, and sewing…)

If you are Chinese, you are guaranteed to be a kung fu master, or at least that seems to be what most people in America think. Even though most people nowadays know that this is merely an unrealistic stereotype, it is still surprisingly persistent. For a while my dad’s Filipino co-workers tried to get him to bust some cool kung-fu moves, despite the fact he didn’t know any. This misconception stems from the fact that a large number of movies and television shows starring Asian characters will have a cast full of martial arts experts. Even movies targeted to children such as Mulan or Kung Fu Panda have main characters that excel at or aspire to be martial artists. No wonder our views of Asians are skewed.

Yet there are technical reasons why most Chinese people know kung fu. The first reason is that the term “kung fu” doesn’t really mean what people think it means. Originally the word “kung fu” refers to any skill that is obtained through practice or training. Therefore, one’s skill in driving can be considered “kung fu,” as well as cooking, playing the piano, playing football, doing homework, all of these skills, or precisely the effort one puts into perfecting these skills, can be called “kung fu.” In modern Chinese the word “kung fu” almost exclusively means “martial arts,” but the older meaning of the word still persists, and from time to time people will talk about their “kung fu” in studying, painting or any human activity wholly unrelated to fighting. This ambiguity in the word “kung fu” has been used as a source of jokes from time to time. (So yes, all Chinese people know kung fu, but so does everyone else.)

The second reason is that many Chinese people practice tai chi, which is technically a martial art. Tai chi originated as a fighting style, but throughout the centuries has turned into a series of exercises performed by old men and old ladies to improve their sense of balance and mental well-being. It’s a little similar to how professional wrestling slowly transformed from being a serious sport to a performance art. Most practitioners of tai chi can’t do real combat, but the movements they perform were inspired by real-life combat moves. I don’t know how many people practice tai chi, but it’s a fairly large portion of the Chinese population.

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether Chinese or other Asian people are good martial artists, but it’s fun to talk about aspects of my culture with other people. Even if the stereotype is false, it’s nice to know that I can bluff my way in any fight by claiming I’m a kung fu master, then throwing out a few random moves to convince people of my prowess.

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